When are Driverless Vehicles REALLY Coming?!

Well obviously it depends on who you ask. And it depends on what you mean by “driverless!” As stated in this Wall Street Journal article headline, the “self-driving hype doesn’t reflect reality.” Over the last year, we have seen the auto makers and technology developers with countless headline-grabbing announcements around their number of miles tested, company partnerships and purchases, and first-time implementations. Many automakers and technology developers have promised fully automated vehicles in the next few years….and we are seeing driverless vehicle pilots happening around the world (see my blog post on experiencing a ride in one of these pilots!), so they must be coming soon, right?!

I believe the two key questions that all headline-grabbing, driverless companies should be asked to get at the heart of the issue are:

  1. What level of automation are you expecting to have available in the next few years? As this article states, everyone is expecting a Level 5 vehicle. It’s likely that most of these companies are aiming to develop Level 4 (not 5) vehicles, which means that they will be automated, but they will only be able to operate in designated areas and humans may need to take over. Most of the automation that we are seeing today are in Level 2 vehicles (e.g., Tesla’s “Autopilot” system), but we are seeing some of the shared autonomous vehicles operating at Level 4.
  2. Where are these vehicles going to be available? I think most people read headlines citing the availability of driverless vehicles in 2020 and they assume that they can go to a car dealership and purchase one. In reality, I believe we will see shared driverless fleets (similar to what Uber is testing in Pittsburgh and Nutonomy is testing in Singapore) and Level 2 and 3 automated vehicles available at dealerships.

Then the question about timing of our “driverless utopia” (or 100% fully automated, level 5 vehicles) becomes a much harder timeframe to predict. I still remain hopeful that this “utopian” future will happen in my lifetime, but that timeline is fuzzy.  When (if at all) do YOU think it will happen?

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Driverless Vehicle Ethics – Should We Care?

I think I’ve avoided this topic long enough. The types of questions the industry is often faced with are: How will the vehicle decide who to kill: the driver or other people? And will the vehicle have knowledge to make the decision about which people’s lives are more valuable? Should the vehicle aim for the cyclist with a helmet (who is protected) instead of the cyclist without one? To date, Germany is the only government agency that has taken a stance on this topic. As stated in this article, the country’s transportation minister outlined three rules as a starting point for future laws:

  1. Property damage always takes precedence over personal injury.
  2. There must be no classification of people, for example, based on their size, age and the like.
  3. If anything goes wrong, the manufacturer is liable.

Interestingly, the auto makers and technology developers are pretty quiet on this issue. I’m not surprised. I believe the media and the academics are making this into a much larger issue than it actually is (see some examples of the hype here, here, and here). When was the last time when you were driving that you were faced with a decision to kill yourself versus someone else? And, if you are in the very small group faced with that situation, how did you make the decision? Was there even time to make a decision?

MIT has developed a Moral Machine to gather a “human perspective on moral decisions made by machine intelligence, such as self-driving cars.” The reality is that the developers working on driverless vehicles are refining the technology to deal with pedestrians, cyclists, bad weather, poor pavement markings, and construction sites…. Despite these challenges being every day occurrences, our society has put a lot of emphasis on the moral decisions….is that necessary?

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AV Pilots: Policy, Funding, and Partnerships are Happening!

Pilots, pilots, and more pilots!  This is an exciting time in the driverless vehicle world because we’re starting to see Level 3 and 4 automated vehicles being piloted in many different settings around the world (e.g., Japan, Pittsburgh, Singapore, and Dubai). And, what’s even more exciting is that governments are getting involved in a lot of different ways:

  • Establishing policies around driverless testing and pilots. Check out Australia’s National Guidelines for Automated Vehicle Trials, which focuses on safety, but also lays out clear expectations for the private industry.
  • Providing government funding for driverless pilots. The US Department of Transportation just issued a request for proposals for “automated vehicle technology “proving grounds.”
  • Government partnerships with the private sector for driverless pilots. In Ontario, for example, the province, has been seeking out applications for private industry and academic institutions to conduct AV testing. In the United Kingdom, the government awarded a £5.5 million grant to a consortium of partners, which include Bosch, Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), Jaguar Land Rover, Direct Line Group, The Floow and the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

No matter the approach, these pilots are critical for ensuring the advancement of the technology.  The technology requires thousands of miles of testing in real-world scenarios (not just test facilities!) and people need to see the technology in action to be willing to consider using it. Government agencies are starting to see the potential safety and mobility benefits of the technology more and more, but government also needs to understand (based on real-life experience) how they need to update their infrastructure, what data will be needed and be made available, procurement policy changes, how to handle liability, and how best to manage the transition period.  What else should government agencies consider as they implement these pilots?

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Should Road User Charging be Introduced along with Driverless Vehicles?

I was happy to find that a consistent theme at the ITS World Congress this year was on the importance of shifting to road user charging to fund infrastructure investments. The idea behind road user charging is that people pay fees based on how many miles a vehicle travels. Road user charging pilots are currently happening in many states, including California, Oregon, and Colorado; in addition to being established in places around the world, including Germany and New Zealand.  This is a seemingly logical consideration for government for the following reasons:

  • Many governments rely upon fuel tax revenues to fund infrastructure and the purchasing power of fuel tax revenues has declined as vehicles have become more fuel efficient and the tax hasn’t been increased enough to keep up with inflation or infrastructure spending needs.
  • Driverless vehicles have the potential to be all electric (so they’ll generate no fuel tax revenues) and to enable increased vehicle miles traveled. By charging people based on their distance traveled, this tax may discourage unnecessary trips (which is a significant concern in a driverless society).

The potential for road user charging becomes even more significant when the government considers how it might support a wide range of governmental goals.  Road user charging rates could be adjusted based on the following types of variations:

  • Charging based on time in order to reduce peak travel congestion;
  • Charging based on a cordoned area to reduce congestion in that specific region;
  • Charging based on vehicle occupancy could incentivize sharing (and, conversely, disincentivize zero and single-occupancy vehicle trips);
  • Charging based on a vehicle’s impact to the roadway (e.g., charging more for heavy vehicles or for sudden acceleration and braking)
  • Charging based on the fuel efficiency of a vehicle to encourage reduced greenhouse gas emissions; and/or
  • Charging based on road types to discourage non-local vehicles traveling on local streets;

Despite the fact that will be a challenge to implement, I believe that road user charging has the potential to be introduced at the same time as driverless vehicles. Why not leverage the excitement around the adoption of a new technology by introducing a new (and desperately needed) funding mechanism for infrastructure spending?

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How Driverless Vehicles Could Impact Parking

“We have significant parking demands today, but should we invest in a parking structure that may not be needed in a few years?” “Will we need all of the parking that we have today?”  “How can we make sure driverless vehicles aren’t parking 20 miles outside of our city center?”  Driverless vehicles will, indefinitely, have significant implications on a region’s existing and future parking requirements.  I hear questions like these all the time, so I figured it was worth a dedicated blog post.

Changes to parking requirements will largely depend upon the level of vehicle and ride sharing that occurs. If people continue to own cars similar to how they do today, this means that the number of vehicles will, generally, be the same and, consequently, the parking demand, will remain as-is. On the other hand, if the level of vehicle and ride sharing increases (and private vehicle ownership decreases), parking requirements would also decrease.

For the parking requirements that still exist – it has the potential to be re-located since vehicles can park themselves after dropping a passenger off. Urban parking could be re-located to remote locations so the expensive downtown real estate can be re-purposed. Homeowners could re-purpose their driveway and garage and pay for remote parking instead.  Remote parking will, of course, result in increased vehicle miles traveled, so government agencies will need to consider this trade-off, determine their desired outcomes, and establish pricing and policies that support them.

Other potential impacts:

  • Parking space size requirements may shrink because AV parking will be more precise
  • Buildings, transit stations, and other destinations will likely need more/better pick-up and drop-off locations due to increased ride sharing and/or vehicle pick-up/drop-offs
  • Traffic in areas with parking constraints could improve due to a reduction in vehicles circulating looking for parking.
  • Existing parking structures could be re-purposed due to reduced parking requirements.
  • Parking fees/taxes could increase or decrease depending on how much parking is still needed and how it is priced/taxed.

Driverless vehicles present an opportunity to free up a lot of valuable land; however, it’s up to the government to ensure that happens (by putting policies and pricing in place to encourage vehicle and ride sharing!). It’s also up to the government to make sure the land gets re-purposed appropriately.  Let’s start planning for that now!

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My First Driverless Vehicle Riding Experience!

I’m ashamed to say that it has taken me two weeks to write about one of the highlights of my trip down under….I got to ride in a driverless shuttle in Perth, Australia!  Earlier this year, the RAC (a private membership organization that, amongst other things, advocates for safer roads in Australia), in partnership with the State transportation agency, acquired a fully autonomous (driverless) electric shuttle through French manufacturer, NAVYA. Referred to as the Intellibus, this Level 4 automated vehicle is navigating a few kilometers of public roadway near the Perth waterfront. Today, with a waiting list of thousands of people, the RAC is allowing members of the general public to sign up as a volunteer to ride in the Intellibus.

Some of my impressions:

  • This vehicle moves SLOWLY. I probably could have run faster than the Intellibus. That being said, the speed is slow on purpose. In addition to the fact that the RAC is testing the technology (and its reactions to obstacles), I would imagine that this is probably what the general public can handle at this point.
  • The other people’s response to the experience was priceless. I watched one woman go from disbelief to amusement to an external processing of what her life could be like with a driverless vehicle. Another person grilled the “chaperone” (who was extremely well-versed in the technology and the industry) about how the technology works. The “chaperone” explained that he has also had riders clutching the seats out of fear. These interactions, to me, are what it’s all about: building public awareness and acceptance around the technology.
  • The vehicle stopped very abruptly anytime anything appeared in its path. The vehicle was purposely programmed this way to maximize safety and minimize risks. Even if a cyclists was a few meters away, the vehicle stopped abruptly. This programmed “leeway” (or lack thereof) is an important consideration as these vehicles are introduced into our public roads.
  • The pre- and post- ride surveys were fantastic. The RAC is getting some very early public data regarding public acceptance, public confusions, potential future applications, etc.

Bottom line: I was so impressed with the RAC and the driverless vehicle experience. The RAC staff spent many months navigating the all aspects of the procurement process, regulatory exceptions, liability requirements, public communications, partnering with the state government, and the list goes on. In my opinion, they are paving the way for both the public and private sector and I was thrilled to have this opportunity.  Has anyone had any similar driverless vehicle experiences?


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The Biggest Barrier to Driverless Vehicle Adoption: Human Acceptance?

Here are just a few stats from some surveys that have been conducted recently:

  • In the United Kingdom, 73% of people would not give up driving in exchange for a driverless car and 38% of people would not likely buy a driverless car even if they were accessible and the same price as regular cars. (source)
  • In a survey of people from 10 countries around the world, 58% say they would take a ride in a fully self-driving car (source)
  • In a survey of Americans, a slight majority of adults under 30 are excited by the future of self-driving cars, compared to 40 percent who are worried. The attitudes of those over 65 are very different: just 19 percent say they’re excited about self-driving cars, while 71 percent are worried (source)

You get the idea…  While the survey questions, timing, and audiences were varied, it’s clear that people have significant concerns with riding in and/or purchasing a driverless vehicle.  This makes sense: driverless vehicles have been a fantasy concept in movies for years (see Disney’s Magic Highway and Total Recall, as examples); I’m not sure anyone expected to see them on our roadways in our lifetime.  I believe the only way to get past this barrier is to actually change people’s perceptions of driverless vehicles….from a concept to a reality.  This means that people need to be able to see and touch them!  Singapore, Pittsburgh, and London have taken great steps forward by doing exactly that and I expect many other cities to follow in the coming months and years. I’ll be curious to see if those cities’ comparable survey responses change more quickly than others.

The private sector is motivated to get these driverless vehicles out quickly, but what can the government do to help advance human’s acceptance?  Pilot programs (Bishop Ranch) and test sites (GoMentum Station and MCity) are just a couple of examples.  Do you have any other ideas?

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